Is there a Vol void?

You can always tell when a basketball team is losing; its leadership suddenly becomes a hot-button issue.

When Jerry Green's final Tennessee team was losing 10 of its last 16 games in 2000-01, the slump was blamed on a lack of leadership.

When Buzz Peterson's final Tennessee team was losing 10 of its last 14 games in 2004-05, the skid was blamed on a lack of leadership.

So, now that Bruce Pearl's 2010-11 Tennessee team has lost five of its last seven games, the culprit is - wait for it - a lack of leadership.

Pearl brought the issue to the forefront following Saturday's 70-69 home-floor loss to Mississippi State by noting that, "We have some competitors but we have no leaders."

Senior point guard Melvin Goins was not amused, which became evident when he was asked about the head man's comment. Goins pointedly noted that leadership goes "from the top all the way down, you know? So, if that's what he says, that's what it is ... a lack of leadership."

What Pearl said to Goins in private about that little zinger is unknown but what he is saying to the media this week suggests the coach did not feel insulted by the player's remark.

"When Melvin Goins said that leadership is everywhere, he's right," Pearl said. "He needs Coach to do a better job of leading and the players need to do a better job of leading. If we do that it might help us finish strong."

Some Vol fans were upset when Pearl questioned his team's leadership - just as they were upset when Green did so in 2001 and when Peterson did so in 2005. Pearl counters that noting a leadership void among his players should not be construed as an insult.

"That's not a terrible thing," he said. "It just happens sometimes."

Some fans grumble that the leadership needs to come from the head coach, not the players. Pearl agrees but only up to a point.

"Leadership starts here. It's my job to assist our players to be in a position to lead," he said. "I've always said this: Coaches can lead teams to victories but coaches can't lead teams to championships. That has to come from within (the team)."

Given the controversy Pearl's leadership comment stirred over the weekend, some reporters thought he'd back off the statement a little bit this week. He hasn't. Instead, he has reiterated his belief that leadership is a problem for this team.

"I do feel like we need better leadership - from me and from the players," he said.

Leadership is a tricky word, of course, and its definition depends on whom you ask. To Pearl, a leader is one whose contribution goes well beyond points, rebounds, assists and steals.

"How many guys out there make their teammates better?" he asked rhetorically. "We've come to find out that it's about team responsibilities, and our guys know their responsibilities.

"We've got great kids and great competitors. But leadership is the ability to get everybody on the same page or assist me in getting them on the same page."

Given the importance of leadership within a team, you may wonder why Pearl didn't recruit players with better leadership skills. The coach says those skills are not readily apparent until a player gets on campus.

"Pretty much every player you recruit coming out of high school led his team in a number of ways," Pearl said. "Whether or not that leadership translates (to the college level) is something you really can't determine."

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